On an early summer Friday in 2012, David Gordon was exploring the Galilee Mountains, near Tzfat, on his own. An Israeli couple saw him — a friendly-looking 19-year-old — on the trail, and asked if he would take their picture. Gordon happily agreed, and by the end of the conversation, in typical Israeli fashion, he had been invited to the couple’s wedding the following day.
After the three parted ways, Gordon called his best friend from high school, Yitzchak Cohen. Cohen was in the car when the phone rang, heading home to Jerusalem from his army base for the Sabbath.
“He called me up and said; ‘You want to go to a wedding? I met this couple in the mountains and took a pic for them, and they invited me,’” Cohen said. “And so we went wedding crashing, all right, cool, and at the wedding we were joking around, and he said, ‘I’ll give you a shekel if you know anyone,’ and there was a kid in my unit in the army there, and it turns out it was his sister getting married.”
Cohen laughed over the receiver. “He owes me that shekel still,” Cohen said, “but I forgive him. I was always jealous of him for that. He always did his own thing.”
Gordon, a native of Oak Park, Michigan, had been living in Israel for about a year and a half — mostly in Jerusalem at yeshiva and then with Cohen and other friends. But every so often he would pick up on a whim and head up to Tzfat, where he had discovered Kaballah and meditation. It was a fresh turning off the beaten Orthodox path on which Gordon had struggled all his life. Friends and family would have difficulty reaching him for a week or two or three.
The following summer, he enlisted in the Israel Defense Forces. After a year of intense training, in June 2014, the IDF launched Operation Protective Edge and Gordon was sent to Gaza.
On August 17, as the war was winding down, Gordon left his army base after a scheduled dental procedure and disappeared. Two days later, the IDF declared him a missing person, and within a few hours his body was found in a drainage pipe nearby. He had multiple gunshot wounds. His “weapon was by his side,” an IDF spokesman stated — military phrasing widely considered a euphemism for suicide.
Most newspapers and bloggers reported as much. Many people who knew him took the news as truth. And on a basic level, suicide seemed plausible.
As a child, between third and sixth grade Gordon had been sexually abused by older boys. He didn’t tell his family until he was 16, and instead, he dealt with the situation by abusing drugs and alcohol. When he finally did reveal the abuse, rabbis in his community tried to dismiss his story as hearsay, and he received minimal support from his family.
But on a deeper level, suicide isn’t as clear-cut an explanation for Gordon’s death as it may seem. A formal investigation by the IDF has been going on for more than a year now, and since that initial indeterminate statement, no information regarding the case’s status has been released — not even to members of his immediate family, despite their requests.
The Forward interviewed more than 20 people who knew David — friends, family, teachers, rabbis, fellow survivors; we reviewed tens of thousands of words David published in his final years, and sought to reconstruct his life from Oak Park to Har Herzl cemetery in Jerusalem, where he was buried. The picture that emerges of Gordon in the last years of his life is that of a survivor who had turned a corner. He had become a leader and advocate of other survivors by bravely publishing his own story and calling out the insular community that covered up his abuse.
He wasn’t abusing drugs and alcohol anymore. He loved Israel and had made plans with a friend to go apartment hunting in Tel Aviv days before his death.
All this, of course, does not rule out suicide. But a year later, mystery still surrounds the question: How did David Gordon die?
“It’s one thing to lose a loved one; it’s horrible, your heart aches, it’s awful. But the pain is so compounded when that loved one is so blatantly disrespected like David has been,” said Mimi Maizlech, Gordon’s aunt from Pittsburgh. “David fought for that country. David actually saved lives. And he has been discarded like yesterday’s news.”
The Gordons moved to the ultra-Orthodox community in the Detroit suburb of Oak Park, Michigan, when David was 8 years old. His father wore a black hat; his mother wore a wig. He was the third youngest of four children, two boys sandwiched between two girls. All attended single-sex yeshivas in the neighborhood.
Gordon enrolled at Yeshiva Beth Yehudah, the all-boys Orthodox day school a few blocks away. He made friends easily. He played on the basketball team. He excelled in class. He hung out with his elder brother, Aaron, and his friends. “He was a popular kid,” said Moshe Alishayev, one of his close friends from Beth Yehudah. “Everybody knew him and wanted to hang out with him.”
But toward the end of third grade David began to change. One day, his mother, Ruth Gordon, received a call from a concerned teacher.
In a speech given for a Jewish Community Watch event at the Cleveland Marriott East this past February, after Gordon’s death, she recalled the teacher saying, “Mrs. Gordon, something’s off. David’s becoming chutzpadik [disrespectful], he’s not getting along well with the others, he seems sad. Is everything okay at home?’” Ruth Gordon had noticed a change in her son’s behavior, too, but couldn’t explain it herself. She called her rebbetzin for advice.
“The first words out of her mouth were, ‘Do you think that he could have been molested?’” Ruth Gordon said. “I just laughed. I’m just straight up telling you, I laughed.”
Still, she agreed to take her son to his pediatrician, but an exam turned up no evidence of physical or sexual abuse. She dropped the idea. Over the next years, though, Gordon grew more moody and angry. He fought with his parents. He talked back to his teachers. He grew disillusioned with Orthodox Judaism, which upset his father tremendously. By seventh grade he was failing school and getting into trouble on a daily basis. At the end of the year, Beth Yehudah asked him not to return for eighth grade.
Gordon’s parents had chalked up his bad behavior to that of a difficult child, thinking that some of his friends were bad influences. They had hoped he would grow out of it.
It would be years before he revealed that his mother’s rebbetzin had been right. By Gordon’s own account, as he would divulge more than a decade later, in a Huffington Post article, he was harboring a dark secret from the world: “For eight years I suffered in silence through the horrors of my own personal Hell.”
But that was later. David took his expulsion from Beth Yehudah as a blessing in disguise. He could now escape a conflict-ridden household, his perpetrators and the community that he believed had failed him. He skipped eighth grade and moved to Rochester, New York. After two years at a yeshiva there, he packed up and moved into Maizlech’s house. He enrolled at Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh, a co-ed Orthodox day school.
He soon met Cohen, and the two became best friends. Cohen, though a year older than Gordon, had left home in Washington because of family issues as well. The two soon discovered they also held many similar views: about religion — “We were like ‘Don’t judge us and we won’t judge you”; about authority — “We felt hurt by rabbis who told us what to do”; about success — “We had this feeling that we were gonna be big — that we were great right now, but we were gonna be even greater.”
“They were like brothers, they were inseparable,” said the current principal of Hillel Academy, Rabbi Sam Weinberg.
Gordon and his friends shot pool and played pingpong in the basement game room of the house where Cohen was boarding. They partied. They took camping trips. On Purim one year, Gordon and a friend dressed up all in pink.
“I have this random memory of this time I had a friend from D.C. that was spending the weekend, and David was staying at my house, too,” Cohen recalled. “I help take my friend upstairs and we walk into my bedroom, and David is blasting music, jumping up and down on the bed. We were like, ‘What’s going on?’ God, it was so funny. That was the beginning of a fun weekend.”
According to his mother, friends and teachers, Gordon also experimented with drugs — marijuana, hallucinogens, psychedelics, pills. Often, he and Cohen would smoke marijuana in an alley behind school before first period. Sometimes he would steal pills from medicine cabinets at his friends’ houses. But Gordon went harder than his friends did and experimentation soon turned into abuse.
At 15 he overdosed on a drug cocktail for the first time. He left school and entered a rehab program.
“Our vocabulary went from Gemara and Mishnayos to NA and PTSD” — Narcotics Anonymous and post-traumatic stress disorder — Ruth Gordon said in the same speech in February.
A week before his 16th birthday, Gordon invited his parents to the rehab facility for a special meeting. Eight years had passed since the abuse began, five since it ended, and Gordon was finally ready to tell his family. “I remember my knee-jerk reaction at that table,” his mother recalled in the speech. “‘Please tell me it wasn’t one of your teachers.’ As if that would have made a difference.”
The moment was liberating for Gordon. He was done staying silent. He wanted to move past all the pain and trauma. He wanted his perpetrators to pay for their actions. His father suggested he speak to Rabbi Shmuel Irons, head rabbi of the Kollel Institute where his father often prayed, and see if he could help.
Gordon met Irons privately at the Kollel. In Irons, Gordon saw a Jewish community leader with the power and authority to support him and bring justice. Instead, he found a rabbi skeptical of his abuse from the outset, and intent on keeping the matter private.
“With a breath of authority— and without any investigation — one leader in Detroit’s rabbinical court exclaimed that the accusations were ‘my word versus the perpetrators’ word,’ and that there was nothing that he was going to do about it,” Gordon would later write in The Huffington Post, in reference to Irons. “In a further attempt to muffle my cries, he took out a large volume of the Talmud and encouraged me to read the words in a pathetic attempt to comfort my pain and revitalize my Spirit.”
In an interview, Irons admitted that he never reached out to the alleged perpetrators. He said a few of them had already left the community by that time, and he claimed that Gordon never explicitly asked him to do anything. “I was really there as a sympathetic ear to let him unburden himself,” Irons said.
When asked if he felt an obligation to act on the allegations, Irons, who is also a board member at Yeshiva Beth Yehudah, said: “That was not my position in the community. If he had really wanted to take this to the courts, he could have. That was his decision. No one was stopping him.” As a rabbi, Irons is considered a mandatory reporter of child abuse under the Child Protection Law in the state of Michigan.
Irons told the Forward that he had expressed doubt about what would happen if Gordon had gone to the police: “I said I wasn’t sure how vindicated he would be” when he went to the police, “and perhaps it would be thrown out [of court] and perhaps he would be more frustrated. I wasn’t telling him what to do. He was just thinking about it himself and making his own decision.”
Asked to respond to this conversation, Maizlech was livid. “If an adult, let alone a child, comes to you and says he was abused by somebody, aren’t you chayav” — obligated — “to react in a certain way and not be so defensive? Don’t you have to stop covering your ass at some point, and just react appropriately? And if you have to quote me with ‘Jesus Christ, what the f—-k was this moron thinking?’ I understand.”
The meeting with Irons left Gordon feeling betrayed. How could he belong to this Jewish community? His rehab support group — his first encounter with an amalgam of non-Jews of all racial, ethnic and religious backgrounds — seemed to care about him more. After Ruth Gordon dropped off her son at one meeting and watched a large African-American man embrace him warmly at the door, she would later write: “It’s almost comical that David is getting love and support at a church while he is turned away from his shul, school and rabbeim — his first chevra [community]. Comical but not really.”
Gordon went to the Oak Park police station alone. He gave a statement, and Detective Bruce Grundei was assigned to the case. An investigation was opened in early 2010.
A copy of Gordon’s case file, obtained by the Forward, details a range of alleged sexual abuse that occurred for three years all over the Oak Park and Southfield area. In the basement of the Kollel Institute of Greater Detroit, where kids studied Jewish texts and were left alone, unattended; outside the Kollel, under a tree, during a Jewish summer day camp program; in the bathroom of the Jewish community center; at Yeshiva Beth Yehudah.
Gordon named four alleged perpetrators — all Jewish boys from the community between 6 and 8 years older than him. Gordon said he was exposed to pornographic material and traded pornographic material for sexual favors. He was fondled, forced to give oral sex and, in at least one instance, forcibly sodomized.
Grundei worked on the case for six months, between February and August 2010. Though all the suspects’ names have been redacted, it’s clear Grundei spoke with at least one of the perpetrators directly. The suspect “denied any sexual contact with [David] in any way,” but did admit that “he may have shown [pornographic magazines] to David.”
Grundei was hitting dead end after dead end. Suspects weren’t cooperating — he was having trouble even tracking down the whereabouts, let alone contact information, of two of them; and the community wasn’t helping.
On July 13, 2010, Grundei and another detective visited the Kollel, where Gordon said the majority of the abuse occurred. They met Rabbi Reuven Green, another rabbi at the institute. Green “did not specifically remember the names in the report [of the alleged perpetrators], and had no information regarding their attendance.” The next day, an attorney for the Kollel contacted Grundei to inquire whether the investigation was into the Kollel itself. It wasn’t. Green did not return multiple messages.
Gordon’s parents weren’t much help either. Grundei spoke with his mother only once, at the investigation’s onset. She provided him with general background information about the Kollel but did not know the alleged perpetrators’ names. She told Grundei that “they were not sure as a family whether they wanted to pursue criminally at this point, due to them now living in Pennsylvania.” Grundei later on called her multiple times, but she never returned his messages. Though no case note explicitly mentions Gordon’s father, Yakov Gordon, it seems he declined to cooperate with the investigation altogether.
Gordon also seemed to be struggling with the investigation as it wore on. He was slow to return Grundei’s phone calls. He took almost three months to submit a written statement. On a rare weekend stay in Oak Park to see some old friends, he neglected to stop by the police station to talk to Grundei in person.
Gordon did provide Grundei with one potentially important piece of information: a partial Facebook conversation between himself and one of the suspects. “Yo man im sorry for what I did I was young stupid I didn’t know better,” the suspect wrote.
In August, Grundei submitted the case to the prosecutor’s office for review, with a petition to bring criminal charges against the single suspect he spoke with directly. But when the prosecutor requested that Gordon come in for an interview, he refused. Absent that testimony, the prosecutor lacked evidence to show the court. The petition was denied, and the investigation was shelved.
After a heated argument with the principal, Gordon decided not to return to Hillel Academy for his senior year and instead moved to Israel. He started blogging while studying at the Orthodox Yeshivas Neveh Zion, in Jerusalem. Over the next three years, “Sparks of David,” as he titled the blog, grew into a powerful therapeutic outlet.
Initially his posts were short, impersonal meditations, but over time he developed a distinct voice and sprinkled his writing with personal anecdotes.
Though he never explicitly discussed his own sexual abuse on the blog, Gordon did allude to it a few times, and it’s clear that his attitude was changing. On July 30, 2012, he published a post titled “Resentment and Forgiveness.” It began: “For years, I struggled with resentment and would not let go of those who had hurt me in the past. I would literally work myself up by sautéing my mind in negative memories.”
“My message to you is FORGIVE,” he concluded. “Don’t try and forget because you never will fully. Learn from everything and everybody — even if it’s what NOT to do. Clean your mind. Make way with the old and welcome the new. Forgive those who have harmed you and, most importantly, forgive YOURSELF!”
The next step was advocacy. In 2013, after making aliyah, Gordon contacted Magen, a child protection service headquartered in Beit Shemesh. He met with David Morris, the director at the time, and told him his story. Morris offered him counseling, but Gordon wanted to volunteer. For about six months, he helped set up Magen’s new website and ran its social media accounts. At one point, Gordon found out that one of his perpetrators was going to be working at a summer camp with children. He went to Morris, concerned. Morris sent the camp a letter, according to Shoshana Aaronson, Magen’s social service coordinator, and the camp wrote back that the person in question was no longer on staff.
Gordon wasn’t satisfied, though. He kept meeting new survivors and hearing stories about sexual abuse being ignored by authorities. He started writing what would become his magnum opus. Four months and many drafts later, on June 12, 2013, Gordon published an essay in The Huffington Post, titled “Secrets Don’t Get Better With Age: Why I’m Choosing Leadership Over Secrecy.” At the top of the article were his name and picture for the world to see.
In the penultimate paragraph, he wrote: “If we keep sweeping our problems under the rug we will eventually trip over them. The time has come for us to stand up for ourselves, our children and our communities. It’s time to sacrifice the comfort of not tackling serious issues that are awkward and embarrassing and focus on the dignity of human life. If I can have a voice you can too. Take a stand and be a real leader. Blush for a few moments so others don’t have to bleed.”
The story created a stir in the Jewish community. Gordon received countless messages of support and gratitude from old friends, fellow survivors and complete strangers. “Blush for a few moments so others don’t have to bleed” became a rallying cry for other survivors and advocates.
A few of Gordon’s teachers back from Oak Park, and Southfield contacted him as well, asking for forgiveness. “Several said that they had suspected abuse when David was in school but did not act on it,” his mother said in the February speech. “Let me repeat that again. They told him to his face that they had suspected he was being victimized but did nothing about it.”
Gordon had always considered joining the military, but he wasn’t sure which one. Both his grandfathers had served in the American military, and in the summer of 2012, while working at a magazine and living with his brother in New York City, he had wandered curiously into a U.S. Navy recruitment office. But a trip to Poland to see the Nazi concentration camps, and making aliyah, changed his mind. He concluded that the IDF was defending Israel’s very existence. “Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States,” Gordon wrote later. Two months after publishing the Huffington Post article, he enlisted in the IDF.
There are more than 6,100 lone soldiers currently enlisted in the IDF. Half are native Israelis who have been shunned or excommunicated by their families; a third are American, the most from any foreign country. All are considered to be without immediate family in Israel.
Since 2009, when it was founded, the Lone Soldier Center has tried to be that family. The not-for-profit organization provides housing stipends and apartment appliances; communal meals on holidays, and flights abroad for soldiers to see their families. This past year, the Israeli government raised lone soldiers’ salaries to about double that of regular soldiers.
While there’s no typical lone soldier, many come from yeshiva and Jewish day schools, where a love for Israel is fostered from a young age. Many visited Israel at some point earlier in their life. All feel an obligation to protect what they view as their heritage. Once enlisted, between 60% and 70% are required to go through a three-month intensive Hebrew program. And after that, about 80% choose combat duty, according to Mike Meyerheim, chief operations officer at the Lone Soldier Center. Gordon fit the mold perfectly.
Yonah Hochhauser, an American friend whom Gordon met through the center, said that combat is viewed as doing a little more, that for the sacrifice of leaving your family, lone soldiers want to feel like they’re giving it their all. “You don’t grow up hearing stories about logistics officers,” Hochhauser said.
Gordon set his sights on the most elite unit in the Givati Brigade, the 424th Shaked Infantry Battalion. He made it through basic training and advanced combat training. But the tryout for the special unit was brutal, and Gordon blacked out at one point. Still, he somehow managed to make the cut for Shaked. On May 30, 2014, he graduated with high honors and received a purple beret.
“I can say, we do notice a quite surprisingly high number of survivors that come to volunteer with the IDF, which is an interesting phenomenon,” Aaronson said. “I like to hope it’s a cathartic and empowering experience … but on the other hand, there’s certainly the concerns that you want to make sure they have the support they need.”
About a month later, fighting broke out in Gaza.
The last few weeks of Gordon’s life are patchy and still shrouded in secrecy. His unit was sent into Gaza sometime after July 17, when Israel expanded Operation Protective Edge to a ground invasion. A few soldiers from his unit were killed in combat.
Gordon’s friend and former housemate Sholom Katz, who saw him days before he went missing, said Gordon told him he “was happy for them” — the fallen soldiers — “because they did what they came to Israel and came to the army for.”
On Sunday morning, August 17, as the war was winding down, Gordon went to his army base in central Israel for a dental procedure, perhaps to get his second two wisdom teeth removed (the first two had been removed in January, during basic training). He left the base around noon; it’s not publicly known whether or not he received the procedure. After that, he disappeared.
About 36 hours later, on the morning of August 19, the IDF declared him a missing person. Search parties were organized and dispersed. A few hours later, a sniffer dog found his body in a drainage pipe that goes under a road near the base. There were multiple gunshot wounds. An IDF spokesman would state that his “weapon was by his side” — widely considered a military euphemism for suicide.
And yet, more than a year later, the official IDF investigation into Gordon’s death remains open and ongoing, according to the IDF. Maizlech said the family has requested a cause of death from the IDF and that she has written the Israeli government but hasn’t received any update on the status of the case.
“This whole scenario with the IDF and David’s death, with the lack of communication, with the total disrespect — in one of David’s favorite words, it’s been a clusterf—k,” Maizlech said.
According to IDF figures, 15 soldiers committed suicide in 2014. The IDF would not elaborate on its formal procedures regarding investigations into these deaths.
An autopsy was never done because Gordon’s parents declined the procedure, based on the recommendation of their rabbi, Chaim Ackerman. Gordon’s parents declined to speak with the Forward, as did Ackerman. Two fellow soldiers approached by the Forward also declined to be interviewed.
Others who knew Gordon remain deeply divided and uncertain about his death.
Hochhauser, who lived with Gordon in Israel for a time, was resolute that it wasn’t suicide. He said that he spoke on the phone with Gordon within a week before his death, and that the two had made plans to go apartment hunting in Tel Aviv when Hochhauser returned to Israel.
“I know the general public that didn’t know him say, ‘Okay, a history of abuse, yeah, he killed himself.’ I vehemently disagree with that,” Hochhauser said. “He was an inspiration and had already defeated it, for one, by going public with the story with his head held high. And two, in terms of his drug abuse history, he had been clean for quite a while.”
Chaim Levin, who met and lived with Gordon in Jerusalem in 2013, was less sure. He said that while Gordon’s death still doesn’t make sense to him, he thinks that it was likely a suicide. “I lost seven friends in a year” to suicide and overdose “and [David] was the most unexpected one,” Levin said. “I will be happy to write the biggest public apology if we figure out what happened.”
Tziki Oud, deputy director of the Lone Soldier Center, grew close to Gordon when he joined the IDF. He said he had spoken to him 20 days earlier, after he had left Gaza, and remembers him being in high spirits. “To commit suicide in a place like that… it’s just not like David,” Oud said. “He liked the [Galilee] mountains. I would say okay if it was there. But here like that, that’s just not like David.”
Others who knew Gordon simply took the reports of suicide at face value, and were surprised to hear that the investigation is ongoing.
Maizlech does not believe it was suicide, and feels that the IDF has deemed her nephew insignificant. “I’ve never teetered on this. I believe with all my guts that he didn’t do this,” she said. “He liked life and he treasured it, and that’s why this whole suicide scheme is such a bizarre notion that I can’t fathom.”
It’s unknown whether David had been dealing with suicidal thoughts. All the friends and family interviewed by the Forward said he never broached the subject with them. No published writing of Gordon’s explicitly mentioned suicide, though on April 20, 2012, he did post a link to a YouTube video on his blog of a teenager sharing a story via flashcards about all his close friends that have died from accidents and suicide, and why suicide isn’t the answer.
What is clear is that Gordon thought about his own death and how it would affect those dear to him. Before he went into Gaza, he wrote a letter to each of those he loved, to be found if he died in the line of duty.
To Cohen, he wrote: “We always joked that the two of us would be wildly successful in the future. Old, arrogant, rich bastards sipping scotch and wiping our asses with Benjamins. You have had a head start. And when you do get to the top of it all, please have me in mind. With me, the competition, gone, I have given you a clean shot to be the best!”
Cohen was just getting off work when he was interviewed for the last time: “Here’s the thing I figured out the other day. It’s not about how much money you have. It’s about your influence. That’s success. Dave’s been dead for a year, and we’re still talking about him. That’s success, if you ask me.”
Yardain Amron was a Summer Fellow at the Forward. Contact him at email@example.com